WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Testing The Waters: New Regulations Are Flowing To Make Water Safer

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Jun 20, 2024
UNCW researcher and PFAS Testing Network member Ralph Mead collects a water sample from the Cape Fear River. (Photo by Daria Amoto)
The Wilmington area has been thrust into the national spotlight as the Cape Fear River Basin has provided the backdrop this year for federal regulations on drinking water.

Seven years ago, the area came to know per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and GenX after the StarNews published a story about its presence in the region’s drinking water. In the following years, the same chemicals were discovered in drinking water across the country.

The story led to local entities seeking to hold manufacturers accountable for the pollution; investing millions of local dollars in research and mitigation; and calling for government protection against PFAS pollution.

Two national announcements this year have reintroduced the country to one of the biggest stories to come out of the Port City.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its first-ever standard for PFAS levels in drinking water. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority installed filters in 2022 that exceed the new PFAS standard.

One month later, President Joe Biden traveled to Wilmington with the EPA for another announcement. While not implying the presence of lead in Wilmington’s infrastructure, the city served as a backdrop for his sweeping announcement about replacing lead pipes nationwide.

The federal government’s attention on Wilmington is not a fluke, said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. Her organization was formed after news of PFAS in water systems broke in 2017. Other advocacy organizations across the country like hers have pressured their state lawmakers to regulate industry polluters.

Clean Cape Fear took a different approach, she said.

“The way our General Assembly’s made up right now that just was not something they wanted to champion and take on,” Donovan said, “so we focused on the federal level.”


About 100 miles upriver from Wilmington in Fayetteville, where PFAS originating from the Fayetteville Works plant ended up in the Cape Fear River, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced this spring that the organization would enforce a new standard for the chemicals.

New drinking water standards were a piece of the Biden Administration’s government-wide plan launched in 2021 to mitigate PFAS pollution. The EPA plans to add nearly $1 billion to its $9 billion in funding to help affected areas test and treat contaminated water.Cape Fear Public Utility Authority chemist Felicia Caison at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington (Photo by Daria Amoto)

Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters at CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant keep the service’s water below the EPA’s newly specified PFAS levels, according to CFPUA officials.

Brunswick County is currently installing a reverse osmosis filter at one of its public water treatment facilities.

The reverse osmosis filter in Brunswick County’s Northwest Water Treatment Plant is 78% done, with an expected completion timeline of late 2024, according to Brunswick County officials.

Pender County Utilities uses sedimentation basins, sand filters and GAC vessels to keep the drinking water in line with EPA regulations, according to Pender County officials. The county is also planning a pilot study on PFAS “removal media,” officials said.

Until every public utility company catches up to the new PFAS standards, 3.4 million North Carolinians are drinking water with PFAS levels above the newly issued federal standards, said Elizabeth Biser, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Public water systems have three years to complete initial monitoring of PFAS and five years to implement solutions to reduce PFAS in drinking water if they exceed the federal standards before they could face infractions.


Meanwhile at the state level, Biser and her organization are beginning to call for separate rulemaking to reduce PFAS in groundwater and standing water now that the federal government issued a standard for drinking water.

This would force manufacturers that produce PFAS to reduce the polluted runoff entering bodies of water like the Cape Fear River, therefore lessening the burden on public utilities filtering out PFAS before it gets to the public.

The state proposals have received some pushback from state business leaders requesting a delay in rulemaking.
N.C. Chamber President and CEO Gary Salamido addressed a letter to Biser on behalf of the organization on April 22, requesting that NCDEQ halt its groundwater PFAS standards process until more research can be done on the fiscal repercussions for businesses.

Biser stated in a response letter the rulemaking process includes an analysis of the regulation’s impact on the state’s businesses, as well as costs and benefits resulting from the standards. She also noted the fiscal repercussions that public utilities have already had to undergo to place water filters in treatment plants, such as CFPUA’s and Brunswick County’s projects.

“If folks are putting PFAS into our surface waters and not having to clean it up and there are no standards in place, then the entire burden of cleaning up PFAS pollution falls on ratepayers,” Biser said.

The state’s rulemaking process to place standards on groundwater and standing water could begin in July, Biser said. She said the rulemaking process has the opportunity for stakeholder input, public comment and public hearings to learn more and ask questions.

The N.C. Chamber issued a statement following Salamido’s and Biser’s exchange.

“The NC Chamber engages in a transparent and open process with government when advocating for certainty and predictability for North Carolina’s business community,” it read. “The business community has every right to ask questions and understand the consequences of proposed regulations.”


Wilmington, being a focal point for PFAS impacts, has turned into a focal point for PFAS research as well.

The PFAS Testing Network, headquartered at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is a collaborative statewide study among higher education researchers started in 2018.

Ralph Mead, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at UNCW, is a member of the PFAS Testing Network. His team of student researchers was included in a $3 million investment from the N.C. Collaboratory, announced in March.
Mead’s lab received a Thermo Fisher Scientific Mass Spectrometer. The instrument will allow Mead’s team to develop and refine a forensic isotope tool to trace PFAS.

In simple terms, the instrument could allow the UNCW researchers to trace one PFAS compound back to its source. The tool is to help regulators identify potential sources of PFAS that were previously untraceable.

“As best as we can tell, no one has applied stable isotope forensic analysis to follow PFAS, and so everything we do on the instrument is going to be new,” Mead said. “The payoff is, we’re hoping anyway, going to be pretty big.”

While Mead’s team hopes to pioneer PFAS tracing technologies, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill-based project called NC Pure is conducting a pilot program at CFPUA’s Sweeney and Richardson water treatment plants, testing a “novel sorbent,” or PFAS-specific filtration device.

UNC-Chapel Hill chemistry associate professor Frank Leibfarth leads NC Pure, a group working to create a material that selectively removes PFAS from water. While GAC and reverse osmosis filters were made to take all contaminants out of the water, NC Pure’s innovation is a sorbent, or an insoluble absorbing material, that targets PFAS specifically.

Currently testing at the two CFPUA water treatment plants with General Assembly funding granted in 2022, NC Pure plans to establish a third test site at a Triangle-area wastewater treatment plant soon, Leibfarth said.


“We have a lot of industry in our state,” Biser said. “There’s a lot of manufacturing, and with that, if you’re using contaminants as part of your process, and it’s being discharged we’re going to see higher levels (of contaminants in water.)”

North Carolina has heightened levels of both PFAS and another possible carcinogen, a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, in the Cape Fear River Basin.

The chemical is a clear liquid used as a solvent in some manufacturing processes. An EPA sampling program found that North Carolina has the third-highest measured concentration of the chemical in drinking water nationwide and fourth highest in the number of impacted drinking water systems, with most detections in the Cape Fear River Basin, according to the DEQ’s Human Health Risk Assessment.

The chemical can be filtered out of water systems using the same methods as filtering out PFAS, GAC and reverse osmosis filters, Biser said.

“CFPUA’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant is one of the few in the state that is equipped to treat 1,4-dioxane,” said Vaughn Hagerty, CFPUA’s public information officer.

Biser said that, in her role, she also hears from residents who are concerned about 1,4-dioxane as well as PFAS.
“And I have heard a lot of stories, both on this and PFAS,” she said, “of residents who will tell me, ‘I’ll drive you down this road and show you all the people who have died of cancer. What is going on?’ And they want to see us take action.”


While contaminants in the region’s water have made national headlines, a recent Biden administration initiative addresses aging pipe infrastructure.

Biden chose Wilmington to make his announcement in early May, unveiling a $3 billion federal investment to replace toxic lead pipes and deliver clean drinking water to communities nationwide, according to a White House release, with $76 million allotted to North Carolina.

“Today, 9 million lead service lines connect water mains to our homes, schools, day care centers, businesses,” Biden said to an audience at the Wilmington Convention Center. “That includes some 300,000 lead service lines here in North Carolina alone – 300,000.”

When the subject of Biden’s visit to the Port City was announced, CFPUA officials issued a release assuring the public that there are no lead-polluted water mains in CFPUA’s distribution system.

CFPUA surveyors did not find lead service lines, according to CFPUA, however, they did find galvanized pipes, an older style of service line that could have a pipe connector made of lead. CFPUA plans to replace any galvanized pipes of lead pipe connectors, officials stated.

The surveying began in 2020, according to CFPUA officials. The organization’s jump on addressing the aging infrastructure in recent years helped the organization secure nearly $4.2 million in funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enacted in 2021. This funding is in addition to the funds CFPUA plans to apply for from the announced $76 million.

CFPUA will not be doing any more service line replacements until at least the fall, officials said.
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